Our elections, their elections

The United States of America is the oldest democracy in the world while India is the largest. And a vital process binds their destiny – Elections. Free and fair elections are the essence and life blood of both democracies.

It is held periodically to determine who will occupy the corridors of power at all levels of government. The orderly transition of power after an election in both countries is much admired and envied by others across the globe.

But the similarities end there. One is a Presidential form of government while the other is a parliamentary democracy. One has a two party system with strong institutions and vigorous law enforcement while the other is a multi-party system with weak institutions and a pervasive disrespect for the rule of law. Although the system of government is very different in the US, its electoral process offers valuable lessons to all stakeholders in India.

The presidential campaign in the US and the state elections of last year and ongoing elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in India were noteworthy for its contrast.

Meaningful debates

In the US, the campaign was more about issues and character of contestants. They were subjected to meaningful debates and the elimination process to choose a winner was transparent. Identity does play a part but was kept in the background. Even when appealing to sections of society, most candidates try to attract voters by advocating policy measures.

Populism and personalities dominated election themes and rallies in the state election. Narendra Modi stood like a colossus over the political landscape of Gujarat and so did Kumari Mayawati, Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh. Identity was at the forefront of campaigns and voters were wooed on promises of government entitlements or freebies catering exclusively to communities.

Apart from campaign themes, there is a plethora of differences in fund raising and actions of various participants that have a direct bearing on the electoral outcome. In the US, funding is generally transparent –  Individual donations are limited, groups form political action committees to receive contributions, candidates release tax returns for public scrutiny and illicit funds from dubious sources are returned or donated.

In India, black money is the main source of election funds. Candidates and political parties adhere to expenditure limits only on paper. Asset declaration by candidates, a recent phenomenon, is never verified by any authority and thus is viewed with cynicism by voters.

Three other stakeholders – interest groups, think tanks and media are analysed here. Both countries have their share of religious organisations, organised labour and issue based interest groups that can deliver votes to certain candidates and parties on Election Day. While issue based groups are vocal in support of candidates before elections in the United States, in India they are largely silent due to their association with an NGO that often needs to do business with government of the day.

The influence of media on election outcome in both countries is debatable. While in the US voters believe media can be swayed, in India there is a strong conviction that it can be bought. Editors and opinion makers routinely endorse candidates in the US but in India either for political compulsions or on the pretense of being neutral, Media does not endorse a party or a candidate.

India’s political parties, institutions and other stakeholders need to take a cue from the US electoral process to bring about sweeping changes to the existing system. An earnest beginning could be made by political parties to shed identity politics and promote inner party democracy. Election Commission seizes piles of cash in the run up to elections but fails to act on money trails.

It should start doing so and must impose stringent penalties for violations of election laws. Interest groups should become vociferous in the run up to elections.  An institution similar to the Commission on Presidential Debates could be established to make debates an integral part of India’s electoral process. Even media should introspect and shed its inhibitions on endorsing meritorious candidates or parties during elections.

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